Performing Arts

New to Classical Music? Start With Mozart

TIMEJuly 30, 2019

NEW YORK—Louis Langrée often meets people while traveling, and they’ll ask what he does. “I’m a conductor!” he’ll say. They ask whether they might have seen something he conducted or where they can catch a performance, and he’ll mention the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York.

“They go, ‘Really! When I was a kid, I don’t know, 40 years ago, this is where I heard my very first classical concert,'” Langrée said.

These encounters bring him joy, speak to Mozart’s accessibility, and affirm to him the relevance of the festival.

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Mostly Mozart Music Director Louis Langrée. (Jennifer Taylor)

Fifty-three years ago, the first festival began as a way to bring some summer programming to the city. It was comparatively casual, affordable, and took advantage of the newly built and air-conditioned Lincoln Center facilities. Today, the summer experiment has become a New York City favorite.

“Mozart’s music speaks to not just our sensitivity, but our sensibility,” Langrée said.

Mozart himself is elusive in the music; he speaks to us, but not of himself, Langrée said, and scarcely any other composer wrote this way. He combined the mind and heart so masterfully you barely notice it.

Like this, Mozart elevates the listener. He wrote not at the behest of any one king or parish, but took his own commissions, and wrote music that could be understood by anyone. Mozart’s genius is such that the scholarly can enthuse about his work all day, but someone who knows absolutely nothing of classical music will too say, “Hey, I enjoyed that.”

You need to know absolutely nothing about history or Mozart to enjoy him.

“I try to get this Mozart lesson in my mind when I come to the programs,” Langrée said. “It can be complex but not complicated.”

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A silverpoint drawing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from 1789.

Langrée made his New York debut with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra (MMFO) in 1998 and was then appointed music director in 2003. He recently had his contract extended through 2023, and by the end of this season will have conducted 167 performances with the orchestra.

On opening night of the festival, Langrée conducted the full-length production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” a first for the festival.

After the precision required of the opera, Langrée says the July 23 and 24 performances of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 and Violin Concerto in D major are a kind of reprieve.

“With ‘The Magic Flute’ we are so disciplined that if you play it a little bit too much or not enough, you destroy it completely. If it’s too much it becomes vulgar; if it’s not enough it becomes dull,” he said.

“With Beethoven you can open it, you can give, especially with ‘Eroica,’ the drama and the battles of the first movement,” he said.

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Conductor Andrew Manze. (Chris Christodoulou)

Andrew Manze, “a favorite guest conductor, the orchestra adores him,” Langrée said, will be conducting the two performances at David Geffen Hall, featuring soloist Vilde Frang.

Manze will also conduct “The Four Seasons” on July 26 and July 27 at David Geffen Hall featuring violinist Pekka Kuusisto and double-bassist Knut Erik Sundquist improvising between each “season.”

An Orchestra’s Identity

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra is a chamber orchestra dedicated to the classical period; Mozart in particular, but more broadly Viennese Classical, Langrée says, and they build on this year after year.

Langrée sees his role as really to help cultivate this identity. The 40-odd piece ensemble is more individualistic than a symphony orchestra expressing a conductor’s voice, he says, and it gives him pride to be able to stimulate the sort of musical dialogues among musicians to achieve the ultimate goal, a result that is undeniably Mozart.

“Mozart cannot be separated from his time, his moment was [a turning point in] the history of the Western world, history of art,” Langrée said.

“After Baroque, and before Romanticism, is this golden, miraculous era of classicism, where the emotion for the meaning of the piece is in perfect balance with the form and balance of the piece,” he said. “The architecture of classicism, with the laws of symmetry … and the clarity of structure elevates the content.”

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The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. (Richard Termine)

Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” is famously for strings, so Langrée created a program around a Mozart piece featuring winds to follow.

On July 27 at 3 p.m. at St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church Wall Street, there is a free concert of Mozart’s “Gran Partita.”

“Normally, serenades are entertaining music for parties, but here the slow movement is one of the most extraordinary, sublime movements he ever wrote,” Langrée said. “This is the kind of piece, the adagio, that you want performed at your funeral. It’s so serene, so sublime.”

“And it’ll give an opportunity to focus on winds, to go deeper in our search for the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra identity,” he said.

Into Romanticism

On July 30 and 31, the festival explores Mozart’s laying the groundwork for the Romantics.

“Don Giovanni is an opera which always fascinated the Romantic generation,” said Langrée, who will conduct MMFO on July 30 and 31 in a concert of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” overture and Brahm’s Symphony No. 3. Pianist Martin Helmchen will join for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, with a cadenza written by Clara Schumann, a muse of Brahms’s.

“[Don Giovanni] is almost Romantic, it certainly opened the gates to Romanticism,” he said.

This is the third year that the festival offerings include a symphony of Brahms, who was a tremendous fan of Mozart’s.

“The roots of his musical knowledge are completely rooted in the Baroque and Classical, even if he was a Romantic, he loved, so much, Mozart that he purchased the manuscript of the G minor symphony, he loved it so much,” Langrée said.

Brahms brings to mind a large orchestral ensemble, which is what Langrée says will make this chamber orchestra performance so exciting.

“It’s good to refresh our ears, to give a different angle of listening and performing these pieces, because when you play a Brahms symphony with a chamber orchestra size … it’s not a smaller symphony, it’s an expanded chamber music,” he said.

“And I think the specialty of a festival is to bring different angles … open our ears and open our hearts,” he said.

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Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. (Richard Termine)

Brahms, known for his love of the music that came before him, certainly begs the question what’s next, after Mozart? Langrée says the following concert seeks to answer that question.

In Vienna, a generation after Mozart, Schubert composed his “Great” Symphony No. 9, which quotes Beethoven’s Ninth.

On Aug. 2 and 3, guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who also makes regular appearances at the Met, pairs Schubert with Beethoven, and pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard joins for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.

A Voyage East

The last week of the festival is a journey eastward, Langrée said.

Joshua Bell, who has performed at Mostly Mozart every year alongside Langrée, is performing Dvorak’s Violin Concerto in A minor on Aug. 6 and 7.

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Joshua Bell. (Mark Hom)

“Because we have this Eastern European flavor, we thought to link it to Mozart we should perform the Prague Symphony,” Langrée said. “Prague’s a very important city for Mozart, because it was probably when he was the happiest man.”

The program also includes Kodaly’s “Dances of Galanta,” based of folk tunes and gypsy melodies from a northern Hungarian town now part of Slovakia.

“So we will have a voyage into Eastern Europe,” Langrée said.

The next and last concerts bring things further east, into Russia, with Shostakovich and Schnittke.

On Aug. 9 and 10, Langrée and MMFO will be joined by pianist Steven Osborne.

“We will present for the last concert a wonderful funny piece,” Langrée said. Schnittke’s “Moz-Art à la Haydn” is entirely a collage of works by either Mozart or Haydn, both composers who played musical games. Of course, the program includes a piece from Haydn as well, “Overture in D major” to open the event.

The Shostakovich piece, “Piano Concerto No. 2” also contains some humor—it was a gift from the composer to his son, which ends up quoting some piano exercises, as he thought his son did not practice enough.

To end, Langrée chose Mozart’s Haffner symphony.

“It is one of the most celebratory, jubilant, which is the best way to close a festival full of innovation,” Langrée said.

Genius and Genre

Langrée has interesting thoughts on Mozart’s innovation. All of the music he performed was new during his time, and he was a wonderful inventor and improviser, but Mozart famously did not create new forms of music.

“He is a genius in every genre—in sacred music, in symphonic music, in opera, in chamber music, piano concertos—he is pure genius,” Langrée said. Yet, he did not invent any of these forms. He wasn’t famous for one particular genre, but managed to write literal masterpieces in every one of them.

“Mozart was a genius in all these genres, and you just could give him anything, he would be a master, an absolute master … he embraces every genre with so much, on a level which is probably unmatched,” Langrée said. His mastery was such that in even, say, his comedic operas like “The Magic Flute,” you find a touch of sacred music; he could apply any necessary genre to great theatrical effect.

The Mostly Mozart Festival tries to emulate this in its programming.

“Everyone will find a reason to come,” Langrée said. For those who prefer the ballet, there is dance. There is theater, opera, chamber music, film, and so on.

“The music is so accessible—this is his genius,” Langrée said.